Every believer has some theology of the atonement.
Faith, after all, is trust in a crucified Savior, and without some understanding, such faith is impossible. Faith knows from the beginning who died on the cross, and it knows, too, why he died. He died for our sins.
But faith can never be content with such elementary knowledge. It wants to live its whole life at the foot of the cross, seeking with every passing day to understand it better.
It Was God’s Love
The first thing to understand is that it was the love of God that provided the atonement. Evangelicals are often accused of teaching the very opposite: that Christ by dying persuaded an angry, vengeful deity to love the human race. It would be hard to name any evangelical who ever taught anything of the kind, and it is certainly not what the Bible teaches.
It was God’s love that prompted him to give his Son (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10), and that love itself has no cause, neither had it a beginning. Like God himself, it is eternal.
This is one of the great paradoxes of the Bible. God’s love for the church was not, like his love for his Son, a necessity of his nature. It was spontaneous and free. Yet God never existed without loving us, and it was this love that prompted him, the offended partner, to take the initiative in healing the relationship broken by sin; and not only to take the initiative, but to bear the whole cost.
Special Emphasis on the Father
But not only does the New Testament trace our salvation back to the love of God. It lays special emphasis on the love of God the Father. This does not detract in any way from the love of the Son who, says Paul, “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). But in so many of the key passages, it is the Father’s love that stands out. It is there clearly in John 3:16, and no less clearly in 1 John 4:10, where the apostle declares that the real nature of love can be seen only in the Father’s sending the Son to be the sacrifice for our sins.
Nor is it a matter of the Father simply initiating the mission of the Son and then standing as a shadowy figure in the background. It was the Father who delivered up his own Son (Romans 8:32), just as it was God who made “the one who knew no sin” to be “sin” for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). The language of the New Testament points consistently to a priesthood of God the Father. It was the Father who brought his Son to the altar.
The Most Challenging Part
This is the most challenging aspect of the cross. We can understand the self-sacrifice of Christ. He was moved by pity for the world. But how can we explain the action of God the Father? What right did he have to sacrifice his own Son? This is where so many theories of the atonement fail. They can explain the action of the Son, but they cannot explain the action of the Father.
The one thing that can justify what God did at Calvary is that it was right, and it could be right only for the reason the Bible itself sets forth: Christ was bearing the sin of the world (John 1:29). The sword fell here because it was deserved, and it was deserved because in the eternal covenant which lay behind his mission the Son had agreed with the Father and the Spirit that he would take the place of his people, making their sins his own. He would bear the curse these sins deserved, and he would bear it not only with them, but for them. He would be their substitute, the ransom that would set his people free.
But was this really necessary? Could God not simply have granted a Presidential Pardon?
His Anger Appeased
The real issue here is whether God could have chosen not to be angry with sin, but the very question presupposes that his anger was a matter of choice in the first place: as if, confronted by the sin of the world, God had sat down, deliberated, and then finally decided, “Yes, on balance I think I should be angry with sin!”
This is not how we ourselves react to the evils and injustices we see around us. We react with anger, not because we decide to, but because evil outrages our very nature; and in this we reflect the image of God. Sin appals him, and this is rooted not in his will but in what he is. His holiness recoils in anger from idolatry and inhumanity; and simply because his anger is there, it has to be appeased.
A reconciliation in which God is still angry with us is a contradiction in terms, and a divine forgiveness which condones sin would un-God God himself.
This is why Christ, as the head of his body, the church, had to die: not simply, as it’s sometimes put, to satisfy the wrath of God, but to satisfy God himself that it is right to forgive sin. By his obedience, Christ expiated our sins; and by expiating sin, he propitiated God.
Glory at Calvary
If God is not angry with sin, we live in a universe without law. If Christ did not placate him, that anger still burns, and one day it will consume us.
Martin Luther once remarked that if the article of justification is lost, the whole gospel is lost. But there is something more fundamental than justification. Justification itself rests on the atonement: we are justified by his blood, through faith (Romans 3:25); and the atonement, in turn, rests on the incarnation. The glory of Christ’s work flows from the glory of his person.
Faith believes that the one, single event that determines our relationship with God is the cross of Calvary; and it has that power because the Crucified was the Lord of Glory.